They will do well because…
– Europe’s best squad in pure talent from back to front, with Brazil the only realistic worldwide contender in that on-paper regard. Whether it’s been through injury, loss of form or simply coaching preference, France kick things off in Russia without the likes of Alexandre Lacazette, Dimitri Payet, Adrien Rabiot, Layvin Kurzawa, Anthony Martial, Kingsley Coman and a previously important leader in Laurent Koscielny… and they’re still strong (and deep) in just about about every area of the field. That old saying about Brazil being able to field multiple teams that could challenge for the World Cup may now also apply to Les Blues.
– For all the warning signs from Euro 2016 regarding Didier Deschamps’s management of the squad at hand and the players struggling with expectation at certain times, much of this team is actually different to two years ago with 14 changes to the squad. Most of all, there can’t be a much better remedy for overcoming mental scars from previous failure than in fearless (and immensely talented) youth new to the scene… Kylian Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé, Nabil Fekir, Corentin Tolisso, Benjamin Mendy, Thomas Lemar, Lucas Hernández, Benjamin Pavard, Florian Thauvin; the list is incredibly exciting for France and rather unsettling for their opponents, both now and after Russia.
– Speaking of Mbappé: together with Antoine Griezmann, I think he’s a strong candidate even at his young age to be the type of talisman France may need to tip the balance in tricky moments late in tournaments. All of France’s biggest successes have had a central figure: Raymond Kopa in the 1958 third-place team, Michel Platini in the early-mid ’80s prosperity, and then Zinedine Zidane for their apogee at the turn of the century. Maybe Mbappé is still far too young for this, but maybe this could also now be more of a two- or three-way act with the more mature Griezmann and (needing to be mature) Paul Pogba in tandem.
– The aforementioned fullbacks should be a major upgrade on what they had at Euro 2016. Mendy is happily back in time from injury while Hernández on the left and Pavard on the right have impressed going forward in recent friendlies. They’re quite the difference to the 35 and 33-year-old legs of Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna two years ago and fullbacks stretching the field and providing midfield passing outlets far more ably could make life easier for Pogba and co.
– After all the criticism and scepticism that’s persisted through a mixed two years since the Euros, Deschamps will finally learn from his mistakes (or avoid them with such a refreshed squad that is well and truly his own by now). France also have history of a highly talented group of players responding to major doubts in the best way possible by winning it all…and this is its 20th anniversary, with the captain from then now in charge and knowing what it takes to answer the critics. He also has more strength in attack than Aime Jacquet’s team did.
They will disappoint because…
– It’s not just Euro 2016 that’s behind the continuing questions being asked about France, or the tame loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup quarter-finals, or the struggle to qualify for Brazil before that. The football in the two years since the crushing defeat to Portugal has continued to vary between sublime and worryingly unproductive, with impressive performances in some games but also poor results against Sweden, Belarus and even Luxembourg in qualifying (those weren’t dead rubbers for France, either). The draw in Lyon to a very inexperienced United States team last week continued the eyebrow-raising theme and Deschamps’s mission to find his best and most cohesive eleven is still unresolved. Does he actually have more talent than he can handle?
– Certain veterans from the 1998 team not involved in this one have already responded to the comparisons by stressing the importance of their unity and experience throughout the growing pains through the 1998 journey…and casting doubt on the ‘mettle’ of the current team. If the selection shuffling continues in a team not initially performing as hoped, are there the leadership and authority figures in this squad to deal with egos of dissatisfied big-name players? There aren’t many obvious candidates in this squad, especially as far as likely starters go beyond captain Hugo Lloris in goal.
They will do well because…
– Lionel Messi heads into his fourth major tournament since 2014 seemingly with the least demanding end to the club season preceding a major tournament.
In 2015, Barca secured the league title on May 17 with Messi’s club season extending to a Copa del Rey final on May 30 and a Champions League final on June 6; Argentina’s Copa América in Chile began just a week later on June 13.
In 2016, Barca secured another league title on May 14 before having to play the majority of a 120-minute Copa del Rey final with 10 men on May 22. Messi was again in national team action just a week later, this time limping off injured in a friendly before a return in the second game of the Copa América Centenario on June 10.
This year, Barca’s Copa del Rey final was back on April 21 with another league title then secured just a week later. Together with the Champions League quarter-final elimination, Messi’s club season this time was over in a normal competitive sense by the start of May, leaving him with a couple of starts on May 6 and 9, a couple of cameos on May 16 and 20 and one full friendly game on May 29, with Argentina’s World Cup in Russia kicking off over two weeks later on June 16.
On the face of it, this isn’t much different to 2014 when Messi contested an unresolved La Liga up to the final round on May 17 but then only played in a couple of friendlies before starting the 2014 World Cup on June 15. Back then, though, towards the end of Barcelona’s season Messi was (finally) feeling the effects of playing almost every minute of Barcelona’s season in a more physically active manner. That wasn’t just down to youthful vigour; as a false nine he was involved in the start *and* end of moves more than he has been in the last few seasons, in which he’s often been found hanging out on the right side uninvolved in the build-up until later in order to preserve his energy.
And unlike 2015 and 2016, Messi has now had something resembling an easy few weeks heading into the big event for Argentina. Now being in his thirties will present its own physical challenges of course, but perhaps he’ll have somewhat more gas in the tank to help avoid the type of burnout experienced after his excellent early performances in Brazil 2014 and the struggle to influence the two Copa finals that went into extra-time.
– Crucial to all this though will be Jorge Sampaoli preventing Messi from needing to inspire Argentina so heavily and constantly in the first place. Where Argentina’s fullbacks have been an offensively limited bunch overall for most of Messi’s career, there are potentially now energetic-wingers-turned-fullbacks in Eduardo Salvio and Marcos Acuña (and a potentially quite decent ‘normal’ left-back in Nicolás Tagliafico). Where Argentina’s midfields in the last three finals have been largely devoid of inspiration, someone like the clever Giovani Lo Celso could prove to be significant. The attack itself may have more going for it too; Sergio Agüero, so adept in combination with Messi at a younger age, might finally be back up to speed with his all-round game after two years of tough love from Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. And in Paulo Dybala and 22-year-old Boca Juniors winger Cristian Pavón, there is potentially far more genuine talent in reserve capable of tipping the balance in tight spots than there was in 2014, when injuries to Agüero and Ángel Di María left the Albiceleste ineffectively turning to Ezequiel Lavezzi, Rodrigo Palacio, Ricky Álvarez and a 33-year-old Maxi Rodríguez.
– Sampaoli, of course, is working with the team week-to-week for the first time since taking over just a year ago. Establishing a workable system takes time and Argentina finally has some of it together.
They will disappoint because…
– That time is still nowhere near enough to sufficiently turn around such a long dysfunctional ship, especially when there some big problems in the squad resources. The defence looks like a wreck in waiting (or, rather a likely continuation from what happened in the 6-1 loss to Spain in March) and exacerbated by the loss of long time #1 Sergio Romero to injury and the use of wingers for fullbacks to further leave slow central defenders isolated in transition. This is also an old squad on the whole, making it harder to press as Sampaoli likes to do (and will need to effectively to stop attacks in transition early in their tracks). There is a real chance here that Sampaoli, instead of being a badly needed progressive change, could go more conservative as Alejandro Sabella and Gerardo Martino did when they found an attacking approach deep into tournaments untenable for such an imbalanced team.
– Not only is the squad old, there are too many key players on the wrong side of 30, reinforcing what a missed opportunity the 2014-2016 tournaments were when so many starting players were in the ideal mid-late 20s age range. For Russia 2018, it’s quite likely that the majority of the starting XI will be over 30.
– One of those 30-somethings is now Di María. Good luck expecting him to not pull up with an injury like he already has in each of Argentina’s last three tournaments, leaving Messi again without an important outlet and someone on his wavelength to combine with. As Di María goes, so too has Argentina over the last decade; the one time he lasted through six or more games in a tournament, Argentina did come out on top…that was 10 years ago in the Beijing Olympics.
– One injury that’s already happened is Manuel Lanzini, one of Sampaoli’s other hopes for improving the play through midfield. If easing the load for each other and combining was going to be the key for Lo Celso and Lanzini making a meaningful impact on this tournament in spite of their international inexperience (and the link-up between them has been promising in recent friendlies), that’s been thrown on its head with Lanzini’s devastating knee injury. Éver Banega is the closest replacement for him and he’s still emerging out of his immature shadow despite being 29…
Ultimately, it’s hard not to feel that Sampaoli’s efforts to get this house in order will be a case of too little too late, as will any possible improvement in performance and endurance through a World Cup for a relatively well-rested Messi.